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The Three Kings of the Democratic Party

Forget about Oprah and Barbra.  There are only three Democrats left out there whose endorsements could really change the game: Al Gore, Edward Kennedy and, yes, John Kerry.
Image: Al Gore
An endorsement nod from former Vice President Al Gore could affect the voting patterns of over 20 percent of Democratic voters.Jeff Chiu / AP file
/ Source: National Journal

Forget about Oprah and Barbra. When it comes to moving votes in the Democratic primary and shaping the race for the White House, there are only three Democrats left out there whose endorsements could really change the game: Al Gore, Edward Kennedy and, yes, John Kerry.

Each of them has a presidential campaign under his belt, and each would benefit his candidate of choice in vastly different ways. "I have no idea whether any of the three of them are going to do it," Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist, said this week on NBC's "Meet the Press." "But if any of the three of them did it, it would be very, very powerful."

Gore: Four years after his highly celebrated endorsement marked the beginning of Howard Dean's end, the Emmy/Oscar/Nobel Prize winner has evolved into the most popular Democrat who hasn't hitched his wagon to a White House candidate.

While endorsements rarely move voters, polls show Gore is uniquely positioned to do so. According to a Pew Research Center poll from June, 21 percent of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters around the country said Gore's endorsement would make them more likely to support a candidate, while just 7 percent said it would negatively influence their decision. That's a higher positive and lower negative than Oprah Winfrey's impact on , according to a recent Gallup/USA Today survey.

A Gore endorsement for Obama or John Edwards (but, more likely, Obama) could doom 's hopes in Iowa, and reconfirm Gore's role as a player on the political stage from which he has been largely absent since his 2000 defeat. While he may be wary of wading into murky intraparty waters, he also knows it could be the best way for him, and the issues he advocates, to remain relevant after 2008. Ironically, while he would have the most decisive impact on the race, Gore is the least likely of the three Democrats to endorse. Associates this week said Gore hasn't ruled out doing so but isn't currently discussing the prospects with any candidate.

Undaunted, Obama is making overtures. In an interview with Time magazine that hits newsstands Friday, Obama said he'd bring Gore into his administration "in a minute," citing the former vice president's work on climate change.

Kennedy: The senior Massachusetts senator is influential among national Democrats and the party's energized base of older liberals, particularly those in his native New England. It was in New Hampshire, for example, that his 2000 endorsement of Gore helped the struggling vice president appeal to liberals, put away Bill Bradley and seal the nomination.

Kennedy could also make a big splash in Iowa, where any of the candidates (except, perhaps, Clinton) could claim to be an insurgent, as Kennedy did in 1980 when he took about a third of the Democratic caucus vote away from then-President Jimmy Carter. Kennedy's support may not translate to a win, but it could be a high point for insurgents (Obama/Edwards) running against the party's establishment (Clinton).

Kennedy also stumped aggressively for Kerry in 2004, helping him score a decisive upset in the Hawkeye State.

Key Democrats say Kennedy is likely to take sides next month, probably before the holidays. Whom he'll endorse is a subject of much speculation, but few specifics.

One quandary for Kennedy in '08: decades-long friendships with second-tier Democrats Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd. (Indeed, personal connections weigh heavily on Kennedy, whose longtime friendship with Gore's father was a crucial factor in his 2000 decision.)

Kerry: Yes, John Kerry.

His popularity may not even reach the levels Gore enjoyed in late '03 when he endorsed Dean. And much like Gore in '04, Kerry opted to forgo another White House bid this year because he was advised that it was virtually unwinnable.

Nonetheless, Kerry has made strategically wise efforts over the past four years to keep in close touch with the extensive national base of party donors and activists he built in 2004, with hopes to have a voice in 2008. Look for him to speak up shortly.

OK, so they don't have talk shows or book clubs, and they offer limited Broadway appeal. But together, Gore, Kennedy and Kerry could determine their party's nominee and, possibly, the country's next president.